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September 27, 2020

Supervisors approve fines for health violations, including facemasks

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY—The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved a temporary ordinance that will allow law enforcement officials to issue tickets to people violating county health orders, including not wearing a face covering where it is required.

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Under the new county code, violators would receive a $100 fine for the first offense, $200 for the second offense within a year, and $500 for the third offense within a year. 

In addition to law enforcement, code enforcement staff and environmental health staff could also issue tickets.

Under the previous ordinance, violators could have been charged with a misdemeanor, which came with a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

Santa Cruz County Counsel Jason Heath said the new penalties carry less of a penalty, even as they allow the opportunity to first educate residents.

“What we’re looking for is something that is broader in scope, that gives us an ability to speak with people, to publicly educate folks and ask them to comply voluntarily before giving them something akin to a traffic ticket if they refuse to comply,” he said. “Nobody wants to issue tickets. What we want to do is obtain voluntary compliance by educating people and asking for their cooperation.”

The same day the City of Watsonville issued its own updated mask order that essentially mirrors the county’s. 

Watsonville Assistant Police Chief Tom Sims said the department will continue to handle calls about mask and other health violations in a “triage” fashion as it does with all of its calls.

He said the new fines are more “manageable.”

“Nobody wants to be out here citing people who are most likely out of work because of Covid for a $1,000 ticket,” he said. “Nobody wants to be doing that.”

He did, however, say the county, especially Watsonville, is struggling to lower its rate of infections and that there needs to be some penalty for those who are not taking the proper precautions.

“We are having a problem in this county and specifically in the city of Watsonville—and it’s data-driven,” he said. “We are seeing a tremendous increase in positive cases and we, as a community, have got to do something to solve this. I’m pleading with our community to adhere to the social distancing, adhere to the mask order, adhere to staying within your own family unit and not bringing in people from the outside to congregate and socialize and do all the things that are causing these positive tests to spike in the city.”

A handful of people attending the meeting spoke to the issue, most of them in opposition to the new rule.

Some called the virus—and the requirements to wear face coverings that come with it—a “hoax.” Others said that Covid-19 is not dangerous enough to warrant the fines.

“While this Covid-19 virus is infectious, it’s not very deadly, and as such I don’t see an argument for shutting things down and having masks,” said Rich Buckingham.

Ellie Black questioned the idea of fining people who are facing economic hardship due to the pandemic.

“Are we crazy?” she said. “To have politicians making this type of decision on a health topic is nuts. We need to get our jobs back. We need to build the economy so we can actually afford to pay these fines.”

The issue garnered little discussion from the board.

Supervisor John Leopold pointed out that the coronavirus pandemic continues to have a serious impact locally, sickening hundreds.

“The impacts are real,” he said. “This new ordinance is just another way of doing something that’s already been in place.”

•••

In other action, the supervisors also approved a plan to let a company that owns an 84-acre site in the Eureka Canyon area to use about three acres, where clients could scatter the cremated ashes of loved ones.

The company, called Better Place Forests, also plans to build a parking lot and make restroom improvements for the new business.

Sandy Gibson, who owns the company, said that families could visit only by appointment and only when staff was there.

Better Place Forests also plans on the “sustainable” harvesting of the trees on 73 acres of the property.

Gibson said that, because the families will not be burying urns containing ashes, but will merely be scattering them at designated trees, the business does not qualify as a cemetery and therefore does not require the same level of regulation.

The company also operates a similar site in Mendocino County, he said.

David Van Lennep, Forest Manager for Redwood Empire Sawmills, spoke in opposition to the plan, expressing concern that it would have “irreversible impacts” on the area.

Bob Berlage of Big Creek Lumber said he doubted that timber harvesting and ash scattering are mutually compatible activities, particularly pointing out that it would be nearly impossible for the workers to keep out of the 3-acre “polygon,” which describes a given area of forest.

“It’s preposterous to think that anyone would go in there and harvest within those polygons,” he said, adding that the ash scattering could make the land unattractive to future buyers.

•••

The supervisors also approved an emergency ordinance that temporarily suspends the requirement for retail establishments to charge fees for single-use carryout bags during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Under the ordinance, retail establishments can still charge for bags if they choose to do so.

“The purpose of this resolution is to protect the health and safety of consumers and retail workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, while reducing disproportionate impacts of bag fees to low-income shoppers,” said Recycling and Solid Waste Services Manager Kasey Kolassa.

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